1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:324-25.



ALLAN RAMSAY, next to Burns the most distinguished of the national poets of Scotland, was born October 15,1686, at Leadhills, in the parish of Crawfordmuir, in Lanarkshire. He was great-grandson of Captain John Ramsay, a son of Ramsay of Cockpen, a branch of the family of Ramsay of Dalhousie. His grandfather, Robert Ramsay, a writer in Edinburgh, and after him, his father, also named Robert Ramsay, was superintendent of Lord Hopetoun's lead mines at Lead-hills, and his mother, Alice Bower, was the daughter of a gentleman of Derbyshire. His grandmother, Janet Douglas, was a daughter of Douglas of Muthil. All the education which he ever received was obtained at the parish school. He lost his father at the early age of twenty-five, and his mother soon after married Mr. Crichton, a small landholder of Lanarkshire, by whom she had several children. In 1700 his mother died, and in the following year his stepfather took him into Edinburgh, and bound him apprentice to a periwig-maker, an occupation which most of his biographers are very anxious to distinguish from that of a barber. In those days, however, from the prevailing fashion of wearing periwigs, wig-making was a very lucrative and highly respectable profession. Allan himself, it would seem, was not ashamed of his trade, but continued at it long after his apprenticeship had terminated. The earliest of his poems which can now be traced is an epistle addressed, in 1712, To the most happy members of the Easy club, a convivial society which, in 1715, appointed him their poet laureate; but it was soon after broken up by the Rebellion. In 1716, while still a wig-maker, Ramsay published an edition of James the First's poem of Christ's Kirk on the Green, with a second canto by himself, to which, two years after, he added a third. From the imprint of this latter edition, it appears that he had shortly before abandoned his original occupation, and commenced the more congenial business of a book-seller. His first shop was "at the sign of the Mercury, opposite to Niddry's Wynd." In 1721 he published a collection of his poems, in one volume 4to, which was so liberally subscribed for, that he is said to have cleared four hundred guineas by it. The greater part of the pieces in this volume had previously appeared at different times in the detached form of sheets or half-sheets, at one penny each, and so popular had his name become, that it was quite customary for the citizens of Edinburgh to send their children, with a penny, for "Allan Ramsay's last piece." In 1724 he published the first volume of The Tea-Table Miscellany, a collection of songs, Scottish and English, which was speedily followed by a second; a third volume appeared in 1727, and a fourth after another interval. This publication went through no less than twelve editions in a few years. The rapid sale of the first volume induced him in the same year (1724) to bring out The Evergreen, being a Collection of Scots Poems, wrote by the Ingenious before 1600. It professed to be chiefly selected from the Bannatyne MS., and was equally successful. Ramsay, who was a Jacobite in principle, inserted in this publication a poem of affected antiquity, under an assumed name, entitled, The Vision, having reference to the Pretender.

His next publication at once established his fame upon a permanent foundation. In 1725 appeared The Gentle Shepherd, a pastoral comedy, in five acts — the best poem of its kind, perhaps, in any language. In 1721 he had published an eclogue, under the title of Patie and Roger, and in 1723 a sequel under that of Jenny and Maggie. The public approbation of these detached scenes encouraged him to make them the groundwork of the complete drama called The Gentle Shepherd, the success of which was instantaneous and unprecedented. Edition rapidly followed edition, and in a few years it was known to every admirer of poetry in the three kingdoms, and had secured a welcome place in almost every cottage in Scotland. The great popularity of Gay's Beggar's Opera, not long after, induced Ramsay to print a new edition of The Gentle Shepherd, with songs abundantly interspersed, adapted to popular Scottish airs, and these it has ever since retained.

In 1726 he removed to a house at the east end of the Luckenbooths, afterwards occupied by Creech the bookseller, and instead of Mercury, adopted for his sign the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden. Ramsay is said to have been the first who established a circulating library in Scotland. After his death, it passed into the hands of Mr. Sibbald, and subsequently into those of Mr. Mackay, by whose respective additions it was rendered the most extensive establishment of the kind, perhaps, in Britain.

In 1728 a second quarto volume of his poems appeared, and was reprinted in 8vo. during the same year. In 1730 he published his Thirty Fables, undoubtedly the best of his minor productions. Among them is The Monk and the Miller's Wife, a story which, though previously told by Dunbar, "would of itself," as a competent critic has remarked, "be Ramsay's passport to immortality as a poet." With these he seems to have concluded his poetic labours. "I e'en gave over in good time," he says in a letter to Smibert, the painter, "before the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I have acquired." His fame had now extended beyond the limits of his native country. An edition of his poems was published by the London booksellers in 1731, and another appeared at Dunbar in 1733. His acquaintance was courted by the rich and the noble, and his shop was the usual resort of the literary characters and wits of Edinburgh. His intercourse with contemporary poets was pretty extensive. Hamilton of Bangour, Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Gay, and others, were among the number of his friends, and he addressed verses to Pope, and Somerville, author of The Chase, the latter of whom returned his poetical greetings in two epistles.

In 1736 his passion for the drama and enterprising spirit prompted him to erect a new theatre in Carrubber's Close; but in the ensuing year the act for licensing the stage was passed, and the magistrates ordered the house to be shut up. By this speculation he lost a good deal of money; and it is remarked by his biographers, that this was, perhaps, the only unfortunate project in which he ever engaged. In 1743 he lost his wife, Christian Ross, daughter of a writer in Edinburgh, whom he had married in 1712, and who left him a son and three grown-up daughters, out of seven children she had borne to him. Soon after her death, with the view of spending his days in dignified retirement, he erected a house on the north side of the Castle-hill, commanding a magnificent view, though now intercepted by the houses of the New Town of Edinburgh. The mansion itself, however, is built in rather a whimsical style of architecture. Here he spent the last twelve years of his life, although he did not give up his shop until 1755, three years before his decease. He died January 7, 1758, aged 72, and was buried in the Greyfriars' churchyard, where a monument was, after the lapse of more than half a century, erected to his memory. Allan Ramsay's works are [list omitted].